Does it matter if my ancestors owned slaves?

by Rebecca Todd Peters last modified 21 August 2015 03:47 PM
Does it matter if my ancestors owned slaves?

Elmina Castle slave holding room. Photo by Kevin Thai

21 August 2015

This week marks the 124th anniversary of the slave uprising in Haiti, which played an important role in the abolition of chattel slavery. Sunday, August 23rd is the UNESCO International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition. It is a day where the world is asked to pause and consider the legacy of slavery and the power of social movements like abolitionism.

Growing up in the US American South as a white child, I learned about slavery in particular ways. Living in the midst of battlefields, patriotic statues of Civil War generals, and family stories of burying silver as Sherman’s troops approached, shaped me in unknown ways. The cotton fields of my childhood were a visual reminder of the back-breaking labor that had fueled the economy, not just of the southern states but the whole country in its early years. Slavery was an embarrassing history lesson in which my ancestors had fought on the losing side of the American Civil War.

As I got older, I read slave narratives and histories of slavery, watched documentaries and movies and visited museums where I saw the instruments used to torture people on a regular basis. As I learned more about the brutal reality of slavery, I realized that my understanding of it had been deeply shaped by my experience of being white.

As a white woman, I wondered how my ancestors answered the questions of racial justice in their time and in what ways my life has been affected and even enriched by the hardships and injustice that were suffered by enslaved Africans. I wondered if anyone in my family had owned slaves.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter if my ancestors owned slaves. After all, my privilege as a white woman in the U.S. in the 21st century is real, whether my ancestors owned slaves or not. The horror of slavery transcends race and nationality in much the same way that genocide anywhere is a stain on the human community.

I vividly remember the palpable feeling of the moral evil that emanates through the slave castle of Elmina in Ghana and the slave chambers near the Zanzibar slave market. As I walked through the “Door of No Return” that leads down to the tiny holding room in Elmina where hundreds of people were forced to wait for the boats that took them to the Caribbean and North America; I became a living witness to the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

Looking around that damp, dark, and death-filled space where unspeakable evil occurred for over 300 years, I thought about the fact that it was white Christians who built castles like Elmina and who perpetrated and profited from the slave trade for centuries. White Christians, who were quite possibly my ancestors, sold and traded their brothers and sisters while worshiping together in churches that often sanctioned and blessed the trafficking in human flesh. Their wealth and prosperity and the wealth of their countries was built up through the sin of human exploitation and oppression.

Acknowledging the moral depravity that was complicit in the existence and promotion of slavery as well as the Christian justification for slavery is an essential foundation for thinking about the contemporary problems of racial injustice that shape life in many countries around the world. Whether or not my ancestors owned slaves, I am accountable for my complicity in the racial injustice in the world today. Knowing and teaching about the slave trade is important in a world that is still rife with racial disparity. The crippling poverty of contemporary Haiti can only be understood in the context of the political history of the Haitian people. Likewise, the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States must be read against the historical backdrop of slavery and its legacy in which black lives have not mattered nearly enough.

When my father died fifteen years ago, I came across a faded newspaper clipping that mentioned that a distant ancestor of mine had owned a slave. While this fact was only a passing reference in the article, it's the only thing I remember.

I do not know the ways in which slave-owning benefited my ancestors or what ways it may have contributed to my own class privilege. Certainly, the fact that one of my distant ancestors owned a slave does not make me culpable for his actions. What does matter is that, as a white woman, I develop a racial consciousness that recognizes the relationship between historical oppression and contemporary injustice; a racial consciousness that can identify the ways in which my Christian faith has been used to oppress black people and to justify slavery; a racial consciousness that propels me to fight against the contemporary racial injustices in our world.

Remembering the slave trade and the abolitionist movement is particularly important for historically white churches in countries that were part of the slave trade during the WCC Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace. We must remember and lament our complicity in the slave trade because our memory and our grief honor the countless victims who suffered and lost their lives. This lamentation is particularly important in contexts, like the Southern United States, where a glorification of the “Old South” seeks to gloss over the atrocities of our history under the guise of “celebrating our heritage.” The horrific murders at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC this summer can only be understood in the context of racial hatred that simmers beneath support for the Confederate flag.

Remembering the abolition movement is equally important because it offers us hope and a model for widespread social transformation even where that social change will disrupt the entire economic order. If ever we needed hope that that sort of social transformation is possible, it would be now – in the midst of a neoliberal economy that is causing widespread immiseration around the world.

During this week of remembrance, we would do well to ask ourselves why it is important to remember the slave trade and the abolition movement in our own contexts.

Disclaimer

The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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